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Obscure Japanese prefecture governor could decide the fate of nuclear power for his country

It appears that the fate for nuclear power in Japan following the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, could be decided by a local governor of an obscure prefecture of about 850,000 residents on the southernmost main island of Kyushu.

Governor Yasushi Furukawa of Saga Prefecture, must decide in coming days whether to support a request by Prime Minister Naoto Kan to restart two reactors at a local nuclear plant that have been shut down since last winter for regular maintenance.  If Governor Furukawa decides no, and other governors follow his lead, every nuclear reactor in Japan could end up idled in less than a year, turning Japan into a non-nuclear country faster than Germany.

Japan’s reactors are legally required to shut down every 13 months for routine maintenance. Thirty-five of the nation’s 54 reactors are now offline, some because of damage from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, but most because of the maintenance requirement. Unless some of them are turned back on, the last reactor in Japan will be shut down by next April.  Currently nuclear reactors provide the nation with almost a third of its electricity.

Turning the reactors back on requires the central government’s approval, which has not been granted since the Fukushima accident. In the public backlash against nuclear power that has followed the disaster, the government is asking local political leaders to sign off on the restarts as well.

Mr. Furukawa is the first governor who is being called upon to make a decision. This has turned him into a reluctant leader of sorts on this nation’s nuclear future, as his decision will be closely watched by other local leaders, most of whom are on the fence about restarting reactors as they weigh issues of public anxieties about safety versus the threat of electricity shortages.

Recent Japanese opinion polls show an overwhelming majority — 82 percent in a survey conducted last month for Tokyo Shimbun — support getting rid of the nation’s reactors, but do not favor an immediate halt, prefering a gradual phasing out of nuclear power as alternatives are found.

Japan has a long history with nuclear power, and is the world’s principle manufacturer of some nuclear reactor components.  A pull back of their commitment to nuclear power could have a resounding affect on the future of nuclear power throughout the world, including those countries – the U.S., India, and Poland – who are still promoting the expansion of nuclear power.  The Saga Prefecture governor should make a decision in the next couple of weeks and we’ll update this blog at that time.